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Students reeling from fatal bus crash

Last band member released from hospital, and so is bus driver

AMERICAN FORK – Clad in flip flops, and cradling her clarinet in her arms, American Fork High School junior Haylie Lund, 17, is wide-eyed as she recounts Saturday's bus accident that killed her band instructor.

"Inside, it was just chaos. Everyone was screaming and getting thrown around like rag dolls," Lund told the Deseret News, during marching band practice after school Monday.

Woodwinds instructor Heather Christensen, 33, an American Fork High alumna, was killed when the tour bus carrying about 50 of the band students veered off Interstate 15 about 50 miles north of the Idaho-Utah border, near McCammon, Ida., Saturday night.

The group was returning from a competition they had won at Idaho State University in Pocatello.

Christensen, lauded as a hero in her death, grabbed the wheel after the bus driver blacked out and the vehicle began to veer.

"If she hadn't jumped and saved that bus of kids, my sister would be dead. And that gives me chills all up and down my spine," said 16-year-old Elizabeth Masson, an American Fork High junior whose sister, Kendra, also 16, was on the bus that tipped over.

All of the bus passengers were taken to the hospital to be checked. Most suffered minor injuries such as cuts and bruises. The driver and several students were hospitalized with more serious injuries.

Drum major Deborah McKinney, 17, a senior, was sporting three stitches across the bridge of her nose Monday. "I hit my head on the seat, and then was thrown onto broken glass," she said.

The last student was discharged from the hospital Monday. Bus driver Debra Jarvis, 50, was discharged Sunday.

The atmosphere at the school Monday was somber and supportive, with some teens crying, students told the Deseret News.

Students dressed in their Sunday best and also donned flip-flops because Christensen loved the casual footwear. By the end of the day, a bench at the front of the school was covered with balloons, flowers and candles.

Lund recalls the students were traveling south in a caravan of four buses. "We were watching a movie, `Better Off Dead', that Heather (Christensen) had picked. She yelled something and I thought she was making a joke about the movie because that was something she would do," Lund said.

But, Christensen was calling to the driver as the bus was veering off the road.

Christensen dove for the wheel, Lund said. "I looked out the window and we were going off the road. We hit a large bump and everyone went flying in their seats. I was so scared. I was terrified," she said. "The bus came down head first, then hit on its side, then slid for a while."

There was screaming and confusion, Lund said.

"The lights turned off and it was just dust everywhere. People were bleeding and frantic," Lund said. "Someone opened the emergency hatch and we got out. We all were crying."

The non-injured students were put on another bus to wait. There, band director John Miller told them Christensen was dead.

"It was really awful. Everyone freaked out. It was so shocking," Lund said. "She really saved us. If she hadn't turned the wheel, the bus could have rolled several times and the injuries would have been much worse."

"It's really a miracle no one else was killed or more seriously hurt," Lund said.

A representative of the company that owns the charter bus, Provo-based Lake Shore Motor Coach Lines, declined to comment Monday on the company's safety record or on whether Jarvis had any known health condition affecting her driving ability.

Monday, a man at bus driver Jarvis's Spanish Fork home, who identified himself as her father, said she was physically fine but did not want to discuss the accident.

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said the board is aware of the crash but is not investigating it.

Many schools in the Alpine School District have used Lake Shore for out-of-state trips in the past several years without any major incidents, and they will not be discouraged from doing so in the future, district spokeswoman Rhonda Bromley said.

"We're definitely looking at this as an accident … No one's talking about there being any negligence by the company," she said, noting that charter bus drivers go through the same background and medical checks as school district bus drivers. "Obviously, the safety of our students comes first."

The incident was also emotional for students in the other three buses, who sat waiting, not knowing how many of their band-mates were potentially injured or dead. "We heard Heather (Christensen) didn't have a pulse and a lot of people were injured and there was a lot of blood. We were all pretty scared," said drum major Richard Flores, 17, a senior.

Parents also experienced emotional trauma.

Wendy Jones, whose son was on the bus that rolled, was traveling on I-15 ahead of the bus. She said her son called her and said the bus had crashed and he didn't know where they were. She heard screaming in the background. She asked if everyone was OK. "He said, `I don't know. I don't know'" and the line went dead.

Jones, the band's booster president and a registered nurse, was able to get back in touch and find the bus, where she helped calm students. "I'm amazed at how well the kids handled this," she said.

By the time the band students returned to their school that night, between about midnight and 4 a.m., a crowd of approximately 500 supportive students, parents and other community members had gathered. The football team even served hot chocolate.

"The parking lot was just jam-packed," Flores said. "It made us feel loved and that we have support out there."

Flores said after every competition, the band sings a special "Friends" song to honor two students who died in a car accident a few years ago. Saturday night, that moment of song was incredibly emotional.

A memorial service Sunday evening at the school brought the group even closer together.

Monday, the band members tried to get back into their routine as much as possible.

Grief counselors were available to any student, and visited the band classes personally where they talked about the incident and how people deal with grief differently.

All students were at band practice after school, where they rehearsed for Christensen's funeral, Miller said.

The band members decided they will still participate in a competition at BYU today for about 30 bands from throughout the Rocky Mountain area.

"We're going to keep on moving forward," said 17-year-old Devin Vogelsberg, a senior who plays the snare drum.

The event, in BYU's LaVell Edwards Stadium, begins at 4 p.m., with the American Fork band scheduled to perform around 9 p.m..

Other bands in the competition plan to wear red and white ribbons in support of the American Fork band. "The band family in Utah is very tight," Miller said, adding e-mails, flowers and cards have poured in from across the nation as word of the accident has spread.

The theme for the American Fork band in the performance is "The Greatest Generation," to honor American veterans. The students have dog tags, one with their name, another with the name of a relative who fought in a war and now another tag with Christensen's name. Her photo is to be added to the program display of students' relatives who died for their country.

"We feel she is a veteran in her own right," Miller said. "We want to honor her too."

The BYU band plans to wrap up the event with a rendition of "Amazing Grace."

"The kids have all changed," Miller said. "They will never be the same."

A viewing for Christensen will be 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at Anderson & Sons Mortuary, 49 E. 100 North, American Fork. A second viewing will be 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Alpine Tabernacle, 100 E. Main, American Fork, with the funeral immediately following.

Contributing: Paul Koepp

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